‘By VE Day, more than a third of Rheingau vineyards had been taken out’
JUST IMAGINE: MAGNIFICENT, serenely arrayed wine-growing districts, such as the Saar or Kaiserstuhl, laden with lovingly tended vineyards, terraced fences, homesteads and gardens. And then bunkers, lots of them, poking out of the earth like mini fortresses, their surreal appearance by the late 1930s not only a portent of events to come; their function a dreadful reminder of the experiences that wine-growers and merchant traders faced within Germany under the Third Reich.
Truly, the Nazi years were ones of searing misfortune for countless German winegrowers and wine dealers. There were the terrifying day-to-day difficulties of running estates with bombs raining down from above, the incessant risk of retribution for those opposed to the authorities, the morbid treatment of Jewish wine merchants and, associatively, the post-war recovery of vineyards and the ongoing challenges of coming to terms with the legacy of Nazism in Germany in the 21st century.
Surveying, all these decades later, the unblemished rows of vines blanketing the hillsides of the Rheingau or Baden, the frights of aerial warfare appear preposterously far removed. And yet, especially during the latter half of the war, these and neighbouring regions were subject to recurrent bombardment. Although vineyards and estates were not intentionally targeted, Allied air forces would, once completing a mission over Germany, routinely jettison remaining munitions on their way back to England, to conserve fuel. ‘Bernkastel,’ according to Ernst Loosen at his eponymous Mosel-based estate, ‘was hit by a few bombs in this way. Near the end of the war, the church at Wehlen [where the famed Sonnenuhr vineyard is located] was struck, as well.’
Attack flight paths meant that some regions fared better than others. While the Mosel only received minor damage in this manner, the Rheingau, in comparison, was devastated. Here, one of the more grievous assaults befell legendary Schloss Johannisberg in 1942 during an air raid on Mainz.
Says estate director Stefan Doktor: ‘The castle was almost totally destroyed to the ground walls, the archives of the wine estate suffering severe losses.’ By VE Day, more than a third of Rheingau vineyards had been taken out. Further south – for example, in Baden, between Kaiserstuhl and the Swiss border – the mayhem was doubly vicious, as entire properties were, at one point, smack in the middle of a battle zone. Lives, suffice it to say, were claimed practically everywhere.
‘It took anywhere from several years to well over a decade for estates to fully recover’
Compared to the quantifiable impact of overhead bombings, the extent of resistance to Nazism among wine-growers in Germany is more difficult to assess. ‘Concerning opposition, active or passive,’ remarks German wine history specialist Dr Daniel Deckers, ‘I tend to rule it out completely’: an explicable stance given the notoriety of Nazi propaganda and, more importantly, the probability of imprisonment (or worse) for those who spoke out against the Reich.
Nevertheless, in terms of private enmity, the living descendants of these same producers appear fairly comfortable citing their forebears’ feelings nowadays. At Rheinhessenbased Weingut Gunderloch, co-owner Agnes Hasselbach recalls: ‘My grandfather [Dr Franz Usinger] was totally against the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler. Due to his opinion… he was [even] selected by the occupation forces to do the denazification for people in the region.’
Age, unsurprisingly, also influenced how some viewed the Nazi years. Loosen, as an intriguing example, recollects the ambivalence of his father Dr Paul Wilhelm Günther Loosen, who ‘was only nine years old in 1933 when Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party came to power. He was indoctrinated into the regime. There was a hateful ideology, of course, but he did not understand it, so he thought that it was all right.’
Twenty years later, in 1953, Dr Loosen took over the winery that, courtesy of his son (who assumed the reins in 1988) now bears his name; although the family had, up to that point, owned vineyards along the Mosel since at least the early 19th century. Six years afterwards, the elder Loosen became a member of the Christian Democratic Union party in then West Germany.
For Jewish persons, on the other hand, the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 spelled the most inexorable woes, which, in the case of the wine industry, inevitably led to their forceable removal as merchants, exporters and general facilitators – prominent positions they had long held.
Estate owners were also singled out, such as Count Richard of Matuschka-Greiffenclau of Schloss Vollrads, who, as related in the official history of the property, lost ‘his post as the president of the Rheingauer Weinbauverein (Rheingau Association of Viticulturists), and half a year later, being the son of a née Oppenheim… falls victim to the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and is fired from his position in Koblenz [as head of the Department of Viticulture and Agriculture] due to racial fanaticism.’ At the end of the war, the Count and his mother were found ‘unscathed’ at the estate.
In contrast, most Jewish members of the wine trade either immediately fled Germany once the Nazis assumed power or gradually departed as their particular situations became untenable; while those who remained were, if apprehended, sent to concentration camps.
One such family to have left were the Sichels, who, aside from having founded the well-known Blue Nun brand in 1923, operated a magnificent wine business in Mainz, their extended dynasty heading up branches in Bordeaux (where they co-acquired Margaux third growth Château Palmer in 1938), New York, London and elsewhere.
Primarily relocating to England – the preferred destination for many Jewish wine merchants departing Germany – the Sichels and exiles like them, including the inestimable Loeb family, fared surprisingly well, continuing to carry out their operations as best they could.
VE Day, mind, did not spell the end of distress. Rebuilding, obviously, was the immediate priority, from resurrecting Jewish-owned wine businesses to rescuing many thousands upon thousands of vineyards throughout Germany from their wretched state. Of the former, in his autobiography, Peter Sichel remarks, ‘When I returned as an officer the day Mainz fell to the US Seventh Army in the spring of 1945, [the family buildings] were in ruin, but luckily the wine cellars were untouched and full of wine.’ Before long, operations resumed.
On vineyard neglect, Deckers reports that by 8 May 1945, ‘many vineyards were either devoid of labour, or only partially functioning. There was a lack of chemicals for treatment, manure, equipment, and above all men. Many forced labourers were on the road at the time, many vignerons had been killed in the war, were missing or POWs.’ It took anywhere from several years to well over a decade for estates to fully recover, with public fees for war reparations continuing into the 1980s.
Then there was the wreckage of the individual: the arguably unparalleled psychological devastation incurred by each and every survivor – wine-grower, wine merchant or otherwise – of Nazi ruthlessness and wickedness. Addressing it, despite all the time that has passed, has hardly been easy; yet many in the German wine industry today certainly give the impression of viewing the legacy of Nazism with both marked seriousness and insightfulness. ‘My mother didn’t want to talk about it,’ says Loosen. ‘Now, however, we [as Germans] grow up completely differently, in open schools. We have a third generation, and the events of so long ago become so far removed, but we must keep the memory alive.’
One might argue that such sentiments, viewed with the openness they deserve, feel tremendously apposite – particularly when combined with the reconciliatory qualities of a fine German Riesling.
Julian Hitner is a Toronto-based wine historian and is currently researching a book on the complete history of Bordeaux. With special thanks to Dr Daniel Deckers for his invaluable guidance